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Thursday31 July 2014

Why slime oozes appeal for the planet’s future

Slime mould could become a kind of organic computer.
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Anna Winston meets Rachel Armstrong the doctor turned sci-fi writer and pioneer of ‘living architecture’


Armstrong: work is not sci-fi.
Armstrong: work is not sci-fi.

Biological and chemical technologies have the potential to not only supplement the computer advances we use to help our buildings conserve energy but could one day make all our familiar building technologies obsolete.

So says Rachel Armstrong, a doctor who abandoned general practice to move into experimental biology, and is one of the world’s leading researchers into living architecture.

Indeed, Armstrong’s experiments could make it possible to create buildings that can heal themselves and even grow organically. If that sounds a little like a science fiction plot, it’s hardly surprising: Armstrong is also a sci-fi writer, but she is unafraid of trying to turn fiction into reality.

Her areas of research have included a slime mould that can solve problems; seaweed that can heal itself when cut into pieces while also absorbing alien molecules in the water around it; and now the protocell — an artificial cell with no genetic information that could one day be programmed to do almost anything.

Armstrong’s first contact with the architectural world came through a fortuitous meeting with the Bartlett’s Neil Spiller at the Virtual Futures conference in 1997.

“Neil pounced on me and said I’ve got a few architectural students that do a bit of biology, do you fancy coming in and doing some tutorials? I thought: “That sounds like a challenge. For me, architecture was the experimental space that I’d completely lacked.”

She supported her involvement in architecture and the arts by working in clinical communication, developing multimedia programmes and virtual reality programmes for the medical community. Then the dotcom bubble burst and she returned to general practice, but a career in medicine had never appealed.

“I missed working in this experimental, alternative context so much that I though right, I’m not practising medicine any more.”

In October 2007, she approached Spiller with the idea of becoming involved in architecture in some form. “I came back a year later with these really interesting model systems that we could use to start generating some of these surreal materials that Neil was very interested in.”

We may find out that slime mould is not useful for anything but hey, it looks pretty

These “surreal materials” will be the eventual result of Armstrong’s experiments with the aforementioned slime mould, seaweed and those intriguing protocells.

“The slime mould experiments are still in a very early phase. We’re using it as a kind of organic computer. We know that slime mould can solve a maze and so what we’d like to do is compare and contrast the slime mould with computer programmes that measure, for example, population flow around a city,” says Armstrong.

“We get an indication of what is possible from a useful architectural perspective by playing with the possibilities first and then finding out which aspects of those systems are actually useful for us. We may find out that slime mould is not actually useful for anything at all but hey, it looks pretty.”

But it is the protocells that seem to hold the most promise for the transformation of the built environment. Armstrong is working with a group of researchers to work out if they can programme the cells to calcify carbon dioxide, creating a solid bio-lime material.

It’s hard to say exactly what all the possibilities for this are, but Armstrong’s favourite example is sustainably reclaiming Venice by building a protocell reef under the city. The most obvious application ties in with Nobel laureate Steven Chu’s recent call for all buildings to be painted white to reflect UV radiation and conserve energy.

“Our bio-lime will be naturally white. Not only will it be able to reflect UV radiation, it will be able to absorb carbon dioxide.”

The first applications of this have nothing to do with science fiction. We’re talking about very smart, active coatings on buildings. And it could easily be applied to the entire built environment.”

Adopting these new materials and forms of chemical and biological computing does not mean throwing out our digital computing systems. The hope is that architectural researchers will find common ground between all these technologies to enable architects to make the most of all of them. But first the design process needs to grow up, says Armstrong.

“All these technologies have a certain amount of complexity and we know how hard complexity is to predict so in some ways we are going to have to let go of our design anxieties. People have got to collaborate on an interdisciplinary level. I know that some people will hate it, but I think it’s a really exciting time for designers.”

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